The name, Wick, comes from the Norse for bay (vik) and it was the Vikings who first used the mouth of the River Wick, where it flows into Wick Bay, as a harbour for their longships and trading vessels. Wick is mentioned in the Viking Orkneyinga Sagas of the year 1140 and today the Norse influence can be found in the place names of Caithness.
King James the VI of Scotland made Wick a Royal Burgh in 1589
Wick was Europe’s premier herring fishing port during the 19th Century. In the 1790s The British Fisheries Society commissioned engineer Thomas Telford to prepare plans for harbour facilities to accommodate 300 vessels and a new fishing village, on the southern bank of the river, with accommodation for 1000 people.
At the time, only half a dozen crofters lived there.
The population of Wick itself, at that period, was around 1000 and it is said that prior to 1767, Wick fishermen only used herring as bait for their white fish lines.
The new fishing village was called Pulteneytown in honour of a former Chairman of the British Fisheries Society, Sir William Pulteney.
Before the harbour works at Wick could be started, a bridge was required to be built across the river, to link this new village to the town of Wick. Construction of the bridge began in 1806, to a Telford plan, and was executed by George Burn, a Wick architect. In March of 1807, Burn had laid the foundation and completed one of the three arches of the work that was completed the following year In 1811 the original harbour was completed at a cost of £16,000, but very quickly became inadequate for the number of fishing boats frequenting it and further comprehensive harbour extensions were required. By 1831 an outer harbour was completed by local civil engineer, James Bremner, at a cost of £22,000.
The building of Pulteneytown harbour gave a tremendous impetus to the Scottish herring fishing. By the early1800s sixteen curing stations had been established at Wick and many more were to follow. In 1783, 363 barrels of herring were cured in Wick for export. By 1790 13,000 barrels were cured for home and export, and by 1815 this had risen to 50,000 barrels. 1100 boats were recorded as fishing from Wick district in 1865. At that time 650 coopers had produced 230,000 barrels in a single year for the herring trade.
In the early years most of the catch went for export, mainly to Ireland and the West Indies, but with the abolishment of slavery in 1807, the West Indies market declined and ceased altogether in 1840. New outlets had therefore to be sought, mainly on the European Continent.
The town’s development around the fickle fortunes of fishing is a remarkable story of vision, good planning, investment, courage, hardship and industry.